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Posts Tagged ‘Scribner’s Magazine’

A Word To The Wise

Posted by Admin on October 15, 2019

The entire expression is “a word to the wise is sufficient” and means that a smart person can figure out what’s implied without the need for a lot of discussion. All it takes is one word to put the person in the wrong straight again, with no repeat warnings and no need for lengthy explanations.  Generally speaking, the expression is used to alert the listener to the fact that advice or a warning is about to be shared with them, and it is strongly hinted at that the advice or warning should be heeded.

It’s interesting to note that variations of the expression also exist in other languages.

In French, you will hear people say, “A bon entendeur demi-mot” which, simply put, is “a half word to the wise.” In Italian, you will hear people say, “A buon intenditor poche parole” which means “a word to the wise is enough.”

In Portuguese, it becomes, “Acenai ao discreto, dai-o por feito” which translates into “give a hint to the man of sense, and consider the thing done.” The Dutch expression similarly expects as much as the French when it states, “Een half woord is bij hem genoeg” as this translates into “half a word to the wise is enough.”

The expression has been used in countless conversations over the generations, including this one, and it retains the meaning it has had for centuries.

In Volume 36 of Scribner’s Magazine published in 1904, in an article titled, “The Point of View: The Art of Marking Tags” the abbreviated version was used. The article addressed the issue of writing from an honest reaction from the author’s individual thoughts instead of relying heavily on maxims from familiar sources such as sayings that are understood by readers but stale from repetition. To illustrate the author’s point, he wrote:

Instead of illuminating his text with the wise sayings of his predecessors, he adopts them only after fortifying them with his mother wit, as the prudent physician fortifies his anaesthetic remedies. For ‘A word to the wise is sufficient’ he gives ‘A word to the wise is superfluous,’ or for ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ he sagaciously substitutes ‘Punctuality is the thief of time’ altering, with consummate impudence, dignified gray sentiments that have walked with Shakespeare and Milton.

In 1852, Grant and Griffith (the successors to Newbery and Harris) in London, England, published a book by Parry Gwynne titled, “A Word To The Wise, or Hints on the Current Improprieties of Expression in Writing and Speaking.” As a warning — since the book is slender — the author ensured readers knew that he did not presume to understand the task of teaching grammar to those who were ignorant of it, but to correct the errors caused by faded recollections and careless use of language.

SIDE NOTE 1 Parry Gwynne also wrote “Mistakes and Improprieties of Reading and Writing Corrected.”

It would appear that a word to the wise enjoyed quite the heyday in the 1850s with all manner of books published with the expression in the titles. Everything from agriculture to zoology seemed to have at least one book titled, “A Word to the Wise.”

The exact phrase was used in the book “Freemasonry: A Word to the Wise” that discussed, among other things, the twelve grades known as the Scotch Masonry.  The book was published in 1796, as was “The Farmer’s Friend, or A Word to the Wise” printed by the loyalist Londonderry Journal to counteract the acts of the ‘enemies of social order.’

Over the decades there was a proliferation of books with the expression in the title, which firmly cements the expression as being one that was used, and easily understood, by those in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Benjamin Franklin included the expression in his essay “The Way To Wealth” which he published in 1758 except he worded it as: A word to the wise is enough, and many words won’t fill a bushel.

But even before then, in 1646 and 1647, four books were published by John Musgrave who had a list of grievances he wanted the public to hear about. He was imprisoned in 1642 for six months for what he claimed was parliamentary protestations and opposition of the arbitrary and tyrannical government of the corrupt magistracy and ministry in Cumberland and Westmorland.

Upon his release, he went to Scotland, and returned two years later. Along with John Osmotherley, he traveled to London to address parliament, making charges against Richard Barwis who was a Member of Parliament. The matter was referred to a committee, however Musgrave refused to answer certain questions, and was found in contempt on 28 October 1645.

Upon his release in 1647, he presented a petition to the House of Lords describing the losses he had endured as a result of addressing parliament with his concerns. The petition did not result in compensation, and it wasn’t much longer before Musgrave found himself back in custody, entering the system again in July of that year.

Again, he attempted to force parliament to deal with his alleged grievances by holding a meeting of the London apprentices at Guildhall. When questioned, he denied having been there at all. Some bloodshed ensued, and as September drew to a close, the House resolved to indict Musgrave at the King’s Bench bar for high treason, and ordered him to be confined to Newgate. Nearly a year later, the charges were dropped and he was released again.

During this period of time, he wrote four pamphlets about his situation, and these were titled:

  1. A Word to the Wise [26 Jan. 1646]
  2. Another Word to the Wise [20 Feb. 1646]
  3. Yet Another Word to the Wise [1 Oct 1646], and
  4. A Fourth Word to the Wise [8 June 1647]

Those are a lot of wise words being shared as advice or counsel.

Musgrave continued to rail against the system, and even took on his two brothers and one sister, describing himself as the victim in a pamphlet he wrote and distributed in 1654 under the title, “A Cry of Blood of an Innocent Abel Against Two Bloody Cains,” he continued to insist he was unfairly mistreated by family, friends, and foes alike.

It is clear that a word to the wise was entrenched in people’s vocabulary in the 1600s for John Musgrave to make such ample use of the expression in his pamphlets.

Idiomation could continue to quote countless instances of the expression, making this entry incredibly long, and possibly exhausting to readers. What we can say is that the expression is found in the Talmud where the maxim is: A word to the wise is sufficient, but for a fool not even a stick helps.  The Talmud was compiled in the 4th century in Galilee, and as old as the Talmud is, the expression is found written in plays from Ancient Rome.

Comic Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC – 184 BC) authored the play “Pseudolus” which was first performed in 191 BC during the Megalesian Festival to celebrate the Greek goddess Cybele. The expression is found in Act IV, scene 7, at line 19 as “Verbum sat sapienti.”

This puts the expression to at least 191 BC, and most likely well before then since it was used in the play by Titus Maccius Plautus. Some idioms have very long legs.  This appears to be one such expression.

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